This column by SUE SKINNER is the first of a monthly Writer’s Notebook column from a newly formed Board of Contributors. Look for the next writer Oct. 25.

I listened recently to the set director of the BBC series, Call the Midwife, talking about a letter he had received from a viewer, wondering if 1950s East End London was really as clean as the series portrayed.

He said that yes, it was. People didn’t have extra to spend on stuff, and it was an era before “take-out,” paper diapers and other products destined at their creation to be garbage after one use.

Though this ought to have been obvious, I really hadn’t thought of throwaway garbage as being such a new phenomenon. When I was little, my mother saved pieces of fabric and made me beautiful dresses, the milk was delivered in glass bottles to the doorstep, where we’d put them back for return. Groceries were wrapped in paper, babies wore cloth diapers, and clothes dried on clotheslines.

Mom used cloth towels in the kitchen, and made cakes from scratch. When we lived in Newfoundland in the late 1950s, we went tobogganing and beach walking and blueberry picking for fun. We didn’t get a lot of toys. Not much household garbage was generated, and ordinary people never considered shopping to be a leisure-time activity.

But then we got our first television when I was 7. Sitting in front of the tube on a Sunday night with a TV dinner on a TV tray was a serious treat. Cake mixes, soda and other “convenience” foods started showing up at the house. Soon, we had three TVs, and my little brother was addicted. And shopping was the in thing.

I would tag along with mom as she shopped for gorgeous clothes at Lily Rubin. I went mad for shopping, and started cultivating a life-long love of cashmere. At the same time, thrift stores became my teenage passion, as I fancied distancing myself from the “material world.”

Ha! Here I am, many years later, using an energy-thirsty computer, and buying stuff to bring back to the house almost every day. Yes, I do little things to conserve, like turning off the lights and toaster, unplugging the power cord on the electronic gizmos, reusing plastic bags. ...

This summer, we took the Alaska Marine Ferry to the Kenai Peninula. Somehow, I imagined that “Our Last Frontier” would be a clean, “no takeaway” place, a paradise of ancient trees, seas teeming with fish and marine mammals and birds. But six days on the ferry revealed thousands of acres of 35-year-old monoculture trees, exactly two orcas, and two breaching gray whales – and these in an isolated cove off the main track.

I was crestfallen.

There was no fresh fish at the Homer Spit fish market the day we got there – just sad pieces of frozen chinook and cans of salmon dog food.

The only wild animals we saw were an exquisite bull moose browsing willow outside Seward, and another younger male being harassed at the Native Cultural Center in Anchorage. We saw one bald eagle and a ferruginous hawk in the Anchorage suburbs. That was it for wildlife.

There are three Walmarts in Anchorage, several Home Depots, miles of strip malls and pawn shops. Our hosts lived in a curious five-story house bursting with still-unwrapped stuff from big-box stores. The home’s owner, who’d moved from New Jersey to Alaska in the 1980s to climb pristine mountains, now thought the proposed Pebble Mine was a great idea, and it would only cause the destruction of a “few” of the salmon-rich tributaries of the Copper River.

Of course, there was garbage everywhere in its various iterations. Plastic water bottles in streets and bins appeared to be especially abundant.

We finally found a tub full of fresh coho in an Anchorage market, so not everything is gone from the “Last Frontier.”

Yet.

Happily back home to drive to the Skipanon for fresh ling cod and chinook, and go out to my friend’s boat and take home the beautiful tuna he gave me! What a pleasure to walk in Astoria and actually be able to cross streets without dodging cars, and visit the food co-op, the wonderful shops, thrift stores and two farmers markets – to read our independent, daily newspaper, and listen to KMUN, and to know people here are struggling to preserve this place.

So, I’m going to try always to carry my own cup, tableware and takeaway container with me, to use cloth bags for everything possible, and to savor and save the beauty we still have here – which scarcely exists anywhere else in our ‘takeaway, throwaway’ world.

Really.

Sue Skinner has lived in Clatsop County 35 years, for most of which she has practiced as a nurse practitioner/nurse midwife, and is co-owner of an independent family practice clinic. Her interests, aside from her work, include reading, writing and spending time with pets and friends.

 

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